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Jun 18, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

Hungary on ECJ ruling: We will continue to insist on the transparency of NGOs

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) might not agree with the tools we put in place in 2017, but its latest ruling only shows that Hungary’s goal of increasing the transparency of NGO finances is, in fact, legitimate.

Earlier today, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published its ruling in a case that was launched in 2017 by the European Commission as an infringement procedure against Hungary. It was based on a law passed that year to increase the transparency of NGOs. According to the ruling, “Hungary has introduced discriminatory, unjustified and unnecessary restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organizations.”

But that’s just the surface. If we dig deeper, we’ll discover that hidden in the decision lie important points that support the legitimacy of our policy. Here’s some background:

In 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law on the transparency of foreign-funded organizations, which, among other important measures, introduced the obligation for foreign-funded NGOs to register in a public system that keeps close track of their funding and activities. Back then, we argued that it’s inconsistent that Hungarian law prohibits political parties from receiving foreign funding while NGOs, even though they engage in political activity, are not.

“Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors – who they are and who pays them. We have the right to know. So, we want transparency,” Prime Minister Orbán said at the time.

Meanwhile, you’ll find this same notion buried deep in today’s ECJ ruling. There, the court admits “that the objectives relied upon by Hungary, consisting in increasing the transparency of the financing of civil society organizations, […] are in principle legitimate.”

Similarly, it affirmed another one of our most important goals by stating that the above objective “is apt to improve the level of information enjoyed by citizens on that subject and to enable them to participate more closely in public debate.”

All of this effectively illustrates that while the EU’s top court might not agree with the specific rules we’ve put in place, it did support the driving principle behind Hungary’s transparency law.

Luckily, the Hungarian government is no stranger to amending laws and practices to comply with ECJ findings, Minister Gergely Gulyás said at today’s Kormányinfó press conference. The minister confirmed that, keeping in mind the law’s original goals, new tools will be put in place that follow the ECJ ruling.

According to a statement by Justice Minister Judit Varga, contrary to the court’s decision, the obligation for NGOs to register and publish data about their finances does not impede the financing or functioning of these organizations. It’s odd, Minister Varga said, that, in 2016, the same Commission that launched the infringement procedure against Hungary had itself proposed a compulsory registry of organizations capable of influencing EU decision-makers.

In light of today’s ECJ ruling, the Hungarian government will continue to insist on the transparency of NGOs.